Cairngorms Walks: The Seven Bridges Walk in Ballater, Aberdeenshire

Ballater, in Aberdeenshire, is a gateway to the Cairngorms National Park and a popular base for visitors looking to explore the Eastern Cairngorms and Royal Deeside areas. The picturesque town arranged in a grid around a large green on the banks of the impressive River Dee, has longstanding royal connections, a rich and interesting history, and good access to the more wilder parts of the countryside.

The view along the River Dee to the west of Ballater.

The River Dee rises high on the Cairngorm Plateau, tumbling around 137km (85 miles) down to the sea in Aberdeen. It has the reputation as one of the finest salmon fishing rivers anywhere in the world, and is a protected area for wildlife, like the salmon, otters, and freshwater pearl mussels found in its waters. The area on the south side of the river is also protected in recognition of its importance for golden eagles.

This walk shows off some of the most beautiful landscapes of the middle reaches of the River Dee, and had some excellent opportunities for spotting wildlife.

The Seven Bridges Walk from Ballater

  • Route length: 8.7km (5.4 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 126 metres (413′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 – 2.5 hours
  • Difficulty: easy

A  circular walk along the River Dee to Polhollick suspension bridge from Ballater, with an optional diversion to Knock Castle. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.

The Old Railway Station in Ballater, where the walking route begins and ends.

From the tourist information centre in the old railway station in Ballater, head through the town southeast along Bridge Street, towards the bridge over the River Dee onto South Deeside Road. The Royal Bridge, opened by Queen Victoria in 1885 and surviving a number of great floods on the river, is bridge number one on the walk.

The River Dee from the Royal Bridge in Ballater

Directly across the junction is a fingerpost sign marking a well-surfaced trail into the woods; follow that up a short rise then turn to your right to find the route towards Bridge of Muick, marked with blue waymarks. Do not walk along the roadside here, as it is a winding country road with no safe footway for at least one kilometre.

Follow the trail through the woods for a short distance to reach the huge pink granite edifice of the Mackenzie Monument, with views across the River Dee to Ballater. It commemorates Sir Allan Russell Mackenzie, 2nd Baronet of Glenmuick, who was closely involved in civic improvements in Ballater and a good friend of the royal neighbours at Balmoral.

The Mackenzie Monument overlooking Ballater and the distinctive pudding-bowl shape of Craigendarroch beyond.

After approximately 1km, the route joins the road for a short distance by the cottages to cross the second bridge, over Brackley Burn, before joining a track running parallel to the road for around 200 metres. At the end of the track, the route emerges on a bend in the road just before Bridge of Muick, the third bridge on the route. A large plaque on the corner notes that on this spot in 1899, Queen Vic, in the company of Sir Allan of the monument, inspected the local regiment, the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, prior to their deployment to South Africa in the Boer War.

The route follows the straight road for around 700m to a junction with a gravel road just before Dalliefour farm, passing fields often used for grazing heilan coos, those photogenic shaggy-haired highland cattle, both with the more familiar red-dun and traditional black coats. At this point you can make a diversion to Knock Castle, a 16th century ruin with a colourful history, adding an extra 2km to the route, or continue along the gravel road towards Polhollick.

Highland cattle grazing on the riverside, with a view of Craigendarroch beyond.

The gravel road runs almost dead straight towards the forestry plantation of Dalliefour Woods (also spelled Dallyfour and Dalhefour within the space of two grid squares on the OS Map), passing another field of coos, and the tiny wee cottage that is my dream house. The track has great views over to Ballater, nestled under the oak-clad slopes of Craigendarroch, and is always a good location to look out for raptors, hares, and roe deer.

The route through the pine plantation wood between Dalliefour and Polhollick.

At the far edge of the wood the white-painted suspension bridge of Pollhollick comes into view, bridge number five (the fourth is an indistinct culvert on the forestry road, over a small burn running from behind Knock Castle). The bridge was fabricated by Abernethy and Co of Aberdeen in 1892, who produced several similar suspension bridges that cross the Dee, and gifted to the local people by Alexander Gordon of Kent. It was seriously damaged in the extreme flooding that followed Storm Frank in December 2015, but is now fully restored.

Polhollick Suspension Bridge

Over the bridge, the track dog-legs away from the river towards the main A93 road. Cross the road, and follow the waymarking to pick up a track that runs along the top of the embankment parallel to the road. Descend the steps to cross the A939 at the junction, and continue on the track for another 250 metres, emerging on the side of the A93 at Bridge of Gairn. Cross the road, then the sixth bridge on the walk, to find a waymarked track between the houses and farm buildings.

The narrow footpath becomes a wide, well-surfaced track leading the last kilometre and a half back into Ballater along the riverside. It was intended to hold the final stretch of the Deeside railway line towards Crathie and Braemar, but due to Victoria’s objection, it was never constructed. The final bridge on the route is a small wooden bridge that crosses a steep drop down to the water, known as Postie’s Leap. According to local legend, a postman fell or leapt to his doom after being jilted the night before the wedding. It’s a beautiful viewpoint back along the River Dee.

Looking back along the final section of the trail through the oakwood at the foot of Craigendarroch.

From the edge of town you have two options: continue on the riverside footpath around the back of the golf course towards the caravan park, or follow the track towards the houses to meet the roads that will lead you back towards the Old Railway Station.

There are several cafes and coffee shops in Ballater where you can find post-walk refreshments, such as The Bothy and the Bridge House Cafe, though some close for winter. There’s also the Balmoral Bar, if you’re in need of something stronger, and Shorty’s Ice Cream Parlour, for a sweet treat on a hot day.

Knock Castle Extension:

Knock Castle is a ruined, but still imposing, 16th century towerhouse, in a commanding location below the Crag of Knock, overlooking the River Dee and guarding the entrances to Glen Muick. Knock was home the Gordon family, who held a longstanding blood feud with their neighbours, the Forbes family. It is typical of the homes of the landed gentry of the time, and visible beneath the windows are shot holes for defensive pistol fire to deter raiders.

The ruins of Knock Castle.

On one winter trip to cut peats for fuel, the sons of the families met in a violent clash, which left all seven of the Gordon lads dead. Their severed heads were displayed on their peat cutters as a warning to those that might think to cross the Forbes’. Overcome on hearing the news, their grief-stricken father tumbled down the turnpike staircase to his death, ending the family line.

Rather than following waymarks at the junction near Dalliefour Farm, continue along the road for around 400m to where the road bends to the left. Follow the rough grassy track leading uphill into the woods, where it meets a gravel road and you’ll have a first glimpse of the castle. Follow the gravel road westward for around 300m to find a stile that gives access to the field surrounding the castle. Retrace your steps back to Dalliefour to resume the circular walk. The diversion adds around 2km to the total length of the walk.

What to look out for around Ballater

In town: Impressive buildings constructed from local granite; royal accreditation on shop fronts; numerous connections to Queen Victoria; the sweet scent of Deeside Confectioners, an old-fashioned sweetie shop near the Old Railway Station; the sound of bagpipes.

On the hills: A glimpse of dark Lochnagar beyond the hills that guard the entrance to Glen Muick; the bellowing of rutting red deer stags in autumn; distant golden and white-tailed eagles; the steep track up Creag Dubh used in the Highland games hill race.

In the fields: Charismatic heilan coos (highland cows), both with the familiar red-dun coats and more traditional long black coats; big, glossy black Aberdeen-Angus cows; the flash of white that signals roe deer scarpering into the distance; red kites hovering overhead and buzzards perched on fence posts.

The rounded hilltop of Craigendarroch seen from the Seven Bridges walking route.

In the forest: Old oaks at the foot of Craigendarroch; jays and red squirrels making acorn stashes for winter; fantastic fungi formations; plantations of Scots pine at Dalliefour; buzzards resting on high branches; blaeberries and lingonberries among the heather in the understory.

By the river: Salmon making their way upstream, especially between August and November; ospreys fishing; riverside birds like dippers and kingfishers; sand martin roosts in sandy riverbanks.

Getting to Ballater

Ballater is approximately 40 miles west of Aberdeen and 18 miles east of Braemar. The 201 bus service from Aberdeen bus station connects towns and villages along the A93 as far as the village of Braemar.

The view upriver from Royal Bridge in Ballater

There is a large capacity for free parking in the town, making it an ideal base to leave vehicles and explore further afield by bicycle and on foot, especially into rural areas with limited parking like Glen Muick. Electric vehicle charging is available in Ballater.

Route 195 of the National Cycle Network connects Ballater to Aberdeen and other towns and villages on Deeside, on a largely off-road route along the Deeside Way. The multi-use long distance trail follows the route of the old Deeside railway line from Aberdeen to Ballater.

What else do you need to know?

The route is marked along its length, so a map isn’t essential, however it’s good practice to have one with you for longer walks. Simple maps with the route can be picked up from the tourist information centre at the Old Railway Station in Ballater, or you can use OS Explorer 388: Lochnagar, Glen Muick and Glen Clova.

While out walking in the countryside, you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and local landowners on any signs.

Want to try this walking route for yourself? Find the details on ViewRanger.
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The Best Birdwatching Spots in Scotland

My selection of ten of the best birdwatching locations in Scotland.

As I’ve previously admitted on this blog, I’m an avid birdwatcher, and while I’m no expert at identifying different species and interpreting their behaviour, I think there’s something about the curiosity to look, listen and learn a little more about them that builds a deeper connection with your surroundings when you visit a new place.

Thousands of gannets swirling around the seabird city of Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Image by Ingi Finnsson from Pixabay.

Across Scotland there are some incredible opportunities to get close to nature, whether you’re an experienced birder, an enthusiastic amateur, or a complete beginner. From sprawling sea bird cities stacked onto coastal cliffs, and wide estuaries and wave-washed shorelines, through native forests and sparkling lochsides, to heather-clad hillsides and wild mountain plateau. I hope this list sparks some inspiration for including birdwatching on your next trip to Scotland, or to try something different next time you explore the outdoors.

So here’s my recommendations for the best places to go birdwatching in Scotland.
Continue reading “The Best Birdwatching Spots in Scotland”

The 25 most beautiful mountains in the world

Mountains have long held a kind of magic over many of us, both enthralled and appalled by their wild irregularity and the glimpse of danger deep in their embrace. Many peaks have great significance to different faiths and cultures, a rich folklore to explain their origin, or are places of pilgrimage for locals and visitors alike.

You are not in the mountains. The mountains are in you.

John Muir

The most spectacular mountains in the world have captivated the imagination of those that have laid eyes on them. The endless play of light and weather creates views that melt and shift in moments. Dynamic landscapes that are at once intimate and vastly unknowable. Peaks that rake the sky and alter the perspective of those that attain the lofty heights. There is no getting accustomed to them.

To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Whether you’re a seasoned mountaineer, passionate orographer or geologist, a photographer, or merely an inquiring traveller, there’s going to be a mountain on this list that will leave you spellbound.

Stetind

  • Coordinates: 68°09’54” N 006°35’34” E
  • Location: Nordland, Norway
  • Elevation: 1,392 metres (4,566′)
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The distinctive anvil-like summit of Stetind. Photo Credit: Stetind.nu CC BY 2.0

This is Norway’s national mountain; its sheer granite walls soaring over Tysfjord to the distinctive summit, once described as the anvil of the Gods. Fishermen in the Lofoten Islands used its characteristic profile as a navigation mark. Pioneering British explorer and mountaineer William Cecil Slingsby called it the ugliest mountain he ever saw, though he may have been bitter after failing in his attempt to make the summit. I think we’d have to disagree.

Thor Peak

  • Coordinates: 66°32’00” N 065°19’00” W
  • Location: Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada
  • Elevation: 1,675 metres (5,495′)
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Thor Peak, on remote Baffin Island, is the highest overhanging rock face on earth. Photo Credit: Peter Morgan CC BY 2.0

Thor Peak, in Auyuittuq National Park on remote Baffin Island, a towering wave of granite rising up from the Akshayuk Valley, is the location of the greatest vertical drop in the world, a staggering 1,250 metres (4,101′) high*. To put that into context, the Empire State Building is just 443 metres high and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest human-built structure in the world, is 830 metres high. Auyuittuq is an Inuktitut word meaning “land that never melts”. White knuckles and frozen fingertips guaranteed.

*It would take a spine-chilling 36 seconds for someone weighing 80kg to fall the 1,250m from the face below the summit all the way to the valley floor.

Snæfellsjökull

  • Coordinates: 64°48’21” N 023°46’23” W
  • Location: Snæfellnes, Iceland
  • Elevation: 1,446 metres (4,744′)
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Snæfellsjökull in the morning light. Photo Credit: Axel Kristinsson CC BY 2.0

This 700,000-year-old cone-shaped stratovolcano at the western tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula inspired the adventure in Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Largely dormant since around 200 CE, Snæfellsjökull had long been topped by a compact glacier, indeed the name translates to “snow mountain glacier”. However, rising temperatures in the region mean that the summit crater has been ice-free since 2012. In clear conditions, it can sometimes be seen from Reykjavik, 120km away across Faxa Bay, and it was the last sighting I had of Iceland as I sailed into the west on the Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre.

Denali

  • Coordinates: 63°04’10” N 151°00’27” W
  • Location: Alaska, USA
  • Elevation: 6,201 metres (20,343′)
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Aerial view of the Denali massif. Photo Credit: Arctic Hokie CC BY-SA 3.0

Denali means “The Great One” in the Athabaskan language, but this wasn’t the official name of this colossal massif until 2015. For most of its modern history, it was known as Mount McKinley, named for US President William McKinley. In mountaineering circles, it also goes by the nickname “Mount Mid-Life Crisis”, as one of the more accessible of the Seven Summits, however, it is reputed to be especially challenging due to unpredictable weather and extreme elevation from sea level. For those less inclined to bag the summit, spectacular views can be found along the Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3), and from Denali National Park and Preserve.

Ketil

  • Coordinates: 60°24’59” N 044°30’44” W
  • Location: Kujallaq, Greenland
  • Elevation: 2,010 metres (6,594′)
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Ketil, in southern Greenland, is home to soaring big wall climbs. Photo Credit: D. Stanley CC BY 2.0

Ketil is just one of the sky-high granite peaks lining the arrestingly beautiful Tasermuit Fjord in southern Greenland. Known as Uiluit Qaqqaa in Greenlandic, meaning “oyster shell mountain”, it’s common name harks back to one of the Norse settlers that arrived in Greenland under the leadership of the notorious Erik the Red. The west face of Ketil is one of the world’s biggest and most challenging near-vertical big wall climbs, soaring over 1,000 metres. Despite being well off the beaten track, it’s becoming increasingly popular with climbers in recent years.

Suilven

  • Coordinates: 58°06′54″ N 005°08′13″ W
  • Location: Assynt, Scotland
  • Elevation: 731 metres (2,398′)
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The unmistakable outline of Suilven from the west. Photo Credit: Balthus Van Tassel CC BY-SA 2.0

Suilven, or Sùilebheinn in Scots Gaelic, is diminutive in comparison to most of the others on this list, but in my opinion, it’s the most beautiful of them all. An inselberg with an iconic profile, it’s a steep-sided ridge carved by ancient glacial ice rising over a wilderness area of bogs, lochans, and rough moorland. From the highest point, known as Caisteal Liath (Grey Castle), the sheer sides reminiscent of the rocky ramparts of an impenetrable fortress, the panoramic views of Sutherland and the Hebrides are outstanding.

The Eiger

  • Coordinates: 46°39′39″ N 008°00′19″ E
  • Location: Bernese Alps, Switzerland
  • Elevation: 3,967 m (13,015 ft)
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The notorious Mordwand, the north face of the Eiger. Photo Credit: Terra 3 CC BY-SA 3.0

The Eiger is a mountain with fearsome beauty and a notorious reputation. The technically challenging North Face, first ascended in 1938 by a German-Austrian expedition, is one of the most deadly; at least sixty-four climbers are known to have perished on the face, earning it the epithet Mordwand, the “murder wall”. In 2015 legendary speed climber Ueli Steck scaled the Heckmair route up the North Face in an astonishing 2 hours 22 minutes and 50 seconds. For those less inclined to risk life and limb, mountain views can be glimpsed from the route of the Jungfraujoch railway or the après ski terraces of Kleine Scheidegg.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo

  • Coordinates: 46°37′07″ N 018°20′00″ E
  • Location: Dolomites, Italy
  • Elevation: 2,999 metres (9,839′)
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The astonishing Tre Cime di Lavaredo at sunset. Photo Credit: Sinclair CC BY 2.0

In the Italian province of South Tyrol / Südtirol, the rugged Tre Cime di Lavaredo, also known as Drei Zinnen, as the name suggests, are three distinct peaks that make one of the most iconic views in the Dolomites. A 10km circular hike from Rifugio Aurenzo is one of the finest day hikes in the area, taking in spectacular views of the peaks, picturesque mountain lakes, and remains of trenches and tunnels from when the region was part of the Alpine front during WWI. It’s the ideal location to try your hand at Via Ferrata, and gain a new perspective in the mountains.

Matterhorn

  • Coordinates: 45°58′35″ N 007°39′31″ E
  • Location: Pennine Alps, Switzerland and Italy
  • Elevation: 4,478 metres (14,694′)
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The Matterhorn glimpsed from the Gornergrat train. Image in the public domain.

One of the highest summits in the Alps, the near symmetry of the Matterhorn has enchanted visitors to the region since the advent of Alpine tourism in the mid-19th century. The iconic pyramidal peak was first summited by mountain pioneer Edward Whymper in 1865, though not without tragedy, and it now attracts hundreds of climbers attempting an ascent every year. Visitors to Zermatt can get closer to the mountain without climbing on the Gornergatt mountain railway, or gondola lift to the Kleine Matterhorn station.

Aiguille du Dru

  • Coordinates: 45°55′58″ N 006°57′23″ E
  • Location: Alps, France
  • Elevation: 3,754 metres (12,316′)
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The spire of Aiguille du Dru soaring through the cloud. Photo Credit: claudio.audisio CC BY 2.0

Appropriately, aiguille translates as needle, a fitting name for the arresting granite spire of Aiguille du Dru, in the Mont Blanc massif. The highest summit is known as Grand Dru, though it is a sub-summit, Petit Dru at 3,733 metres, that is considered one of the six greatest north face walls of the Alps. Many of the routes pioneered up the wall have been lost in rockfalls over the years that considerably altered the profile of peak.

Half Dome

  • Coordinates: 37°44′46″ N 119°31′59″ W
  • Location: Sierra Nevada, California, USA
  • Elevation: 1,444 metres (4,737′)
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Half Dome and reflection in Yosemite Valley. Photo Credit: www73 CC BY 2.0

The iconic outline of Half Dome, towering over the eastern end of the Yosemite Valley, was made famous by legendary American photographer Ansel Adams in his striking black and white landscape images. The first technical ascent of the sheer northwest face took place over five days in 1957; the same route was completed free solo in a remarkable 1 hour 22 minutes by Alex Honnold in 2012 (see the documentary Alone on the Wall). Hikers can reach the summit of Half Dome on the Cable Route between May and October, though a permit is required from the Yosemite National Park Authority and it can be crowded on a summer weekend.

Trango Towers

  • Coordinates: 35°46′00″ N 076°10′59″ E
  • Location: Baltoro Muztagh, Karakoram, Pakistan
  • Elevation: 6,286 metres (20,623′)
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From left to right; Trango Tower, Trango Monk, and Great Trango. Their vertical faces are the world’s tallest cliffs. Photo Credit: allanv CC BY 2.0

The Trango Towers are a series of soaring granite pinnacles in the Baltoro Muztagh, northern Pakistan, not far from K2 and the Gasherbrum peaks. The Towers feature some of the most immense sheer walls in the world, with the east face of Trango Tower claiming the title of the greatest near-vertical drop on earth at 1,340m. The region only opened to outsiders in 1975, allowing the discovery of some of the most challenging climbs ever completed, a combination of altitude, steepness, and the technical nature of the big walls.

Fujiyama (Mount Fuji)

  • Coordinates: 35°21′29″ N 138°43′52″ E
  • Location: Honshū, Japan
  • Elevation: 3,776 metres (12,388′)
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A dreamy view of Fujiyama. Photo Credit: Tim Donnelly CC BY 2.0

There is a saying in Japanese; He who climbs Fuji is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool. Fujiyama is a captivating volcanic cone, capped with snow for almost half the year, that has enthralled and inspired artists through the ages. Almost 300,000 visitors troop to the summit annually, so the tranquillity of the peak is best appreciated from afar. The mirror lake of Kawaguchiko (Lake Kawaguchi) and the Edo-era buildings at the Iyashi-no-Sato open-air museum on Saiko (Lake Sai) offer the finest viewpoints.

Machapuchare

  • Coordinates: 28°29′42″ N 083°56′57″ E
  • Location: Anapurna Massif, Nepal
  • Elevation: 6,993 metres (22,943′)
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The distinctive fishtail summit ridge of Machapuchare. Photo Credit: Carsten Nebel CC BY-SA 4.0

Machapuchare is named for the notched summit ridge and double peaks, reminiscent of a fishtail when viewed from the Annapurna sanctuary. The mountain is sacred to the Hindu religion, believed to be one of the earthly homes of the god Shiva. It’s long been claimed that no human has ever set foot on the summit; in 1957 an expedition led by British climber Wilfred Noyce reached within 150m (492′) of the summit before turning back.  No climbing permits have been issued since. It’s rumoured that New Zealand climber Bill Denz made an illegal ascent in the 1980s, though he perished on nearby Mansulu in an avalanche in 1983, taking the truth with him.

Ama Dablam

  • Coordinates: 27°51′40″ N 086°51′40″ E
  • Location: Eastern Himalayas, Nepal
  • Elevation: 6,812 metres (22,349′)
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The view of Ama Dablam from Kala Patthar. Photo Credit: Stefan CC BY 2.0

With a name meaning “Mother’s necklace”, the arresting Ama Dablam appears to reach out in an embrace as two ridges reach out from either side of the main peak. It lies close to the route of the popular trek to Everest Base Camp, towering over Thyangboche Tibetan Monastery (also known as Dawa Choling Gompa), once home to Tensing Norgay before his mountaineering career took off, and often captures the hearts of those that pass by, enticing them to return.

Cotopaxi

  • Coordinates: 00°40′50″ S 078°26′16″ W
  • Location: Andes, Ecuador
  • Elevation: 5,897 metres (19,347′)
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The symmetrical cone of Cotopaxi viewed from the altiplano. Photo Credit: Simon Matzinger CC BY-SA 3.0

A stunning stratovolcano with a distinctive snow-capped cinder cone, Cotopaxi is the second-highest peak in Ecuador and can be seen on the skyline from Quito and while driving the Panamerican Highway. It’s also one of the most active volcanoes on this list, with 87 recorded eruptions since 1534, the most recent in 2015-16. The mountain and surrounding National Park eventually re-opened to visitors in late 2017, and with time for acclimatisation, the summit can be gained on a challenging but non-technical ascent.

Kilimanjaro

  • Coordinates: 04°03′33″ S 037°21′12″ E
  • Location: Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania
  • Elevation: 5,895 metres (19,308′)
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Snow-capped Kilimanjaro from Amboseli. Photo Credit: Nicolas Hoizey CC BY-SA 2.0

Kilimanjaro does not, in fact, rise like Olympus over the Serengeti; instead, the world’s highest freestanding mountain soars above the savannah of Tsavo and Amboseli, on the Kenyan side of the border. As one of the Seven Summits, it features on the to-do list of most mountaineers, but scaling the peak needs no technical skill and large numbers of people attempt the trek to the summit. Trails lead through a succession of ecozones with distinct flora and fauna, before emerging onto a rocky lunar world and the glaciated landscape of the summit.

Mount Roraima / Monte Roraima

  • Coordinates: 05°08′36″ N 060°45′45″ W
  • Location: Pakaraima Mounains / Sierra Pacaraima, Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela
  • Elevation: 2,810 metres (9,220′)
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A trekking route to the top of Roraima starts in the village of Paraitepui in Venezuela. Photo Credit: Paulo Fassina CC BY-SA 2.0

Spectacular Mount Roraima is the highest tepui, or table-top, in the Guiana Highlands of South America, a vast plateau bounded on all sides by 400 metre (1,300′) high cliffs. The national borders of Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana meet at a tripoint on the top, which was unexplored until 1884. The mysterious plateau is home to a unique diversity of flora and fauna, and often seen shrouded in mists, inspiring both the setting of Paradise Falls in the Pixar film Up, and the living dinosaur haven in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World.

Alpamayo

  • Coordinates: 08°54′45″ S 077°39′07″ W
  • Location: Cordillera Blanca, Peru
  • Elevation: 5,947 metres (19, 511′)
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In 1966 Alpamayo topped a poll of mountaineers to be named the most beautiful peak on earth. Photo Credit: Frank R 1981 CC BY-SA 4.0

Alpamayo is often named the most beautiful mountain in the world, and the near-perfect pyramid of ice and rock in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca is certainly hard to resist. Not even surveyed until the 1940s, due to its remote location, it was successfully summited first by a German expedition in 1957. The steep faces of Vienetta-like fluted ice require a high level of technical ice climbing ability, but superb views of the peak can be taken from the trek to basecamp, or the multi-day Alpamayo circuit route.

Huayna Picchu

  • Coordinates: 13°09′27″ S 072°32′50″ W
  • Location: Andes, Peru
  • Elevation: 2,693 metres (8,835′)
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Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu shortly after first light from the Sun Gate. Image in the public domain.

Huayna Picchu is the iconic sugarloaf peak that looms over the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, forming the backdrop of the view from Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) and the final section of the Inca Trail route. Trekkers can follow a waymarked trail to the summit, with sections of scrambling with cable and railings for support, for a vertiginous perspective on the ancient city, named as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.

Pic d’Imarivolanitra (Pic Boby)

  • Coordinates: 22°11′42″ S 046°53′06″ E
  • Location: Andringita Massif, Madagascar
  • Elevation: 2,658 metres (8,720′)
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The Andringita Massif in Madagascar. Photo Credit: Chris CC BY-SA 2.0

Madagascar might be better known for its unique wildlife, but the sheer granite walls of the Andringita Massif often draw the comparison with the more well-known peaks of Yosemite, and have been a pull for big wall climbers since the 1990s. The towering presence of Pic d’Imarivolanitra, also known as Pic Boby, is Madagascar’s second-highest mountain, and a feature of trekking circuits through Andringita National Park and nearby Tsarnovo Valley. At around 2,000 metres (6,5652′) high the trails pass through a dreamlike landscape of rock gardens filled with colourful succulents, before descending into lush forest.

Table Mountain

  • Coordinates: 33°57′26″ S 018°24′11″ E
  • Location: Cape Province, South Africa
  • Elevation: 1,085 metres (3,559′)
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The Cape coastline emerges through the clouds on Table Mountain. Photo Credit: vapour trail CC BY 2.0

The stark profile of Table Mountain dominates the skyline of Cape Town, despite its relative lack of stature. While this entry on the list offers an easy route to the top via the Aerial Cableway, there are several hiking routes of varying difficulty that lead up the mountain and across the vast summit plateau, including through the beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and out to the shark fin of Devil’s Peak. The mountain is home to unique native vegetation, part of the designated Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site.

Cradle Mountain

  • Coordinates: 41°40′48″ S 145°56′24″ E
  • Location: Central Highlands, Tasmania, Australia
  • Elevation: 1,545 metres (5,069′)
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Cradle Mountain above Dove Lake. Photo Credit: Steve Penton CC BY 2.0

At the heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the rugged basalt peaks of Cradle Mountain rise over lakes carved out by ancient glaciers surrounded by alpine moorland and temperate rainforest. The area is home to unique Australian wildlife with absurd names; echidnas, wombats, quolls, pademelons, and the elusive Tasmanian Devil. There’s a darker history to the region too; following violent persecution by European settlers, the last free Aboriginal Tasmanians were sighted in the area in 1836. The Overland Track, an iconic bushwalking trail considered one of the world’s best, links Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair, the deepest in Australia.

Monte Fitz Roy / Cerro Chaltén

  • Coordinates: 49°16′16″ S 072°02′35″ W
  • Location: Andes, Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
  • Elevation: 3,405 metres (11,171′)
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Mount Fitz Roy is also known as Cerro Chaltén, the smoking mountain, for the clouds that usually shroud the mountain. Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff CC BY-SA 2.0

Named Fitz Roy in honour of Robert Fitz Roy, captain of HMS Beagle, who charted large stretches of the Patagonian coastline, this imposing shark-tooth peak sits astride the international border between Argentina and Chile. First ascended in 1952, the peak has drawn the attention of several notable climbers, including Tommy Caldwell (The Dawn Wall) and Alex Honnold (Free Solo), who traversed the 5km long ridgeline of Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks. For those less inclined to scale lofty heights, the peak is the spectacular backdrop to several trekking routes in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and day hikes around the village of El Chaltén. The routes lead through woodlands and montane meadows, to reach spectacular glacial lakes and rugged boulder fields.

Cerro Torre

  • Coordinates: 49°17′34″ S 073°05′54″ W
  • Location: Andes, Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
  • Elevation: 3,128 metres (10,262′)
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The east face of Cerro Torre above the glacier. Photo Credit: Gagea CC BY-SA 3.0

Another peak often touted as the most beautiful in the world, Cerro Torre is an arresting pinnacle of granite topped with an otherworldly mushroom of rime ice. Its undeniable beauty is matched only by its colourful history. Declared an impossible summit by climbing pioneer Walter Bonetti, the Italian climber Cesare Maestri claimed success in 1959. His partner Toni Egger was swept away in an avalanche on the descent, taking with him the only camera recording the event. Further attempts using a variety of climbing techniques only brought more controversy and claims of desecrating the singular nature of the peak. A story worth delving into further for mountain buffs.

Ulvetanna Peak

  • Coordinates: 71°50′60″ S 008°19′59″ W
  • Location: Drygalski Mountains, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica
  • Elevation: 2,930 metres (9,612′)
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Ulvetanna in the southern Drygalski Mountains. Photo Credit: Wilfried Bauer CC BY-SA 3.0

The granite peak of Ulvetanna, meaning “the wolf’s tooth” in Norwegian, is one of the most inaccessible mountains in the world. A captivating spire of rock in the Fenriskjeften Mountain, it rises like a fairytale castle over the white expanse of the ice sheet below. It was first climbed in 1994, but its remote location means it’s unlikely to make it on to your mountain bucket list unless you’re an experienced mountaineer with polar connections.  Instead, you can vicariously explore it from the comfort of your home by watching The Last Great Climb, documenting the first ascent of the northeast ridge by British climber Leo Houlding and his team.

Why not save this dose of mountain inspiration for later?

Photo Journal | Autumn in the Cairngorms

Autumn in the Cairngorms is sensational. Autumn is the season of transition, when days are honeygold and light, and nights are inky-dark, afternoons are sun-warmed, while mornings are crisp with frost. Autumn is when weather plays across the landscape, changing through the months and through the course of any one day.

The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Rowans extravagant with red berries. Birch and bracken glowing acid green and yellow against the dark of the pines, and the oak and beech woodlands blaze with a fire of reds, golds, and oranges.

“October is the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August. From the gold of the birches and bracken on the low slopes, the colour spurts upwards through all the creeping and inconspicuous growths that live among the heather roots – mosses that are lush green or oak-brown, or scarlet and the berried plants, blaeberry, cranberry, crowberry and the rest. “

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow tucked behind tussucks, sheltering from the low autumn sun.

The first snows of winter dust the high plateau from early October, replenishing snow that lies year round in dark hollows on northern slopes, and draping a silver cloak across dark hills beneath bleached out skies. In this transitional time, overnight snowfalls cover mountain trails and reveal tracks, deer, ptarmigan, hares, melting away just as quick.

In the gloaming, as the dark draws in earlier every day, and on days that are dull and overcast, the colours glow on the hills. The radiant magic of the trees in fall. A last brief blaze of sunlight as they retreat before the winds of winter that whip the leaves from their branches. Cool, wet south-westerly winds that sweep in from the Atlantic, that lay damp orange carpets of larch needles on the forest floor.

Night falls after short days, wood smoke-scented and velvet-textured, filled with a full moon and a scattering of stars.

Have you visited the Cairngorms in autumn? Share your tips for things to see and places to go with me in the comments below.
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The Two Lochs Walk in Abernethy Forest

The Caledonian Forest once covered much of the highlands of Scotland, spreading over the land as the last glaciers retreated and eventually disappeared. But over many thousands of years of human activity that manipulated the wildland, only around 1% of the original temperate rainforest coverage remains in Scotland.

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In the cool freshness under the pine canopy in Abernethy Forest.

Remnants of the Caledonian Forest are unique habitats, home to some of the rarest species in the British Isles, like the endemic Scottish crossbill, secretive pine martens and wildcats, and the majestic capercaillie. In fact, around 5,000 species have been recorded in areas of old-growth forest, ranging from the towering Scots pines to the tiny beetles living under the bark of the trees, with plants, lichens, fungi, and other wee beasties in-between.

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Exploring the woodland on an autumn morning.

Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve on Speyside protects a huge area of Caledonian Forest, as well as rivers, lochs, moorland, and montane plateau. The nature reserve in Cairngorms National Park extends all the way to the summit of Ben Macdui, at 1,309m (4,295′), the second-highest summit in the British Isles.

Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie are beautiful forest lochs, fringed by granny pine trees on three sides, with views of Bynack More and the Cairngorm plateau in the southeast reflected in the dark water. In spring and summer, the lochs are excellent for watching ospreys fishing.

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Gnarled pines and dark water in Loch Garten

Abernethy Forest Two Lochs Walk from Boat of Garten

  • Route length: 10km (6 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 118 metres (387′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2.5 – 3 hours
  • Difficulty: moderate

A walk to Loch Mallachie and Loch Garten from Boat of Garten. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.

From the steam railway station in Boat of Garten follow signage for the Speyside Way trail towards Nethy Bridge, crossing Garten Bridge over the River Spey on the way out of the village. Across the junction of the road is a small carpark with interpretation panels and maps of waymarked routes into the forest.

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Forested islands in Loch Mallachie, with the view to Bynack More behind.

Follow the red route for approximately 1km, then take the right-hand track at the fork, heading south for a further kilometre. At the next junction, take the narrow left-hand fork, and head in an easterly direction.  The path undulates and sweeps round to the southeast through the trees, towards Loch Mallachie. Ignore the myriad paths along the lochside, turning sharply north when you reach the last one, to lead to Loch Garten, the bigger of the two lochs.

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Loch Garten, famous for its fishing ospreys in the summer months.

From the carpark alongside Loch Garten, it’s possible to make a diversion along the road at the top of the loch for around 700m to the RSPB Osprey Centre. It’s a must-do in spring, while the birds are sitting on their nest. Otherwise, follow the blue waymarking northwest alongside the road for a couple of kilometres to meet up with the Speyside Way.

Cross the road to follow a wooden walkway for just over 150m. This was constructed on the edge of a small forest lochan, to give a closer view of the habitat. Look out for spawning frogs and tadpoles in the spring and darting dragon and damselflies in summer.

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Woodland walks in Abernethy Forest

From here you have two options: continue to follow the Speyside Way alongside the road back to the forest carpark, or pick up the forest trail with red waymarking just as you reach the first cottage on the road. The red route is just under 2km through the trees, and returns to the carpark where you entered the forest.

Retrace your route back over Garten Bridge and into Boat of Garten. There are a few cafes and coffee shops in the village where you can find refreshments, such as the Gashouse Café and Cairngorm Leaf & Bean, though some will close for the winter. There’s also the Boat Country Inn if you need something stronger after your walk.

Getting to Boat of Garten:

  • The village of Boat of Garten is connected by a scenic stream railway to Aviemore (nearest mainline railway station) and Grantown on Spey.  Trains run between the Easter and October school holidays.
  • The bus service between Aviemore and Grantown on Spey will stop in the village, and on the roadside approximately 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the RSPB Osprey Centre.
  • Route 7 of the National Cycle Network connects Boat of Garten to Aviemore or Carrbridge, with options for on-road or largely off-road cycling.
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Even in late autumn, the forest is filled with interesting sights, sounds and scents to explore.

What to look out for in Abernethy Forest:

Spring: Red squirrels; crested tits, siskins and endemic Scottish crossbills; frogs and frogspawn in pools and puddles; and the arrival of the first ospreys in mid-March.

Summer: Ospreys fishing on the lochs; great spotted woodpeckers, tree pipits, and redstarts; tree-nesting goldeneye ducks; woodland wildflowers; and dazzling dragonflies and damselflies.

Autumn: The roar of rutting red and roe deer; wild greylag and pink-footed geese coming in to roost at dusk; wildfowl like teal, wigeon, and whooper swans; and incredible fungi formations.

Winter: Gnarled, lichen-encrusted ancient pine forest, with views of the sub-Arctic tundra plateau of the Cairngorm Mountains across the iced-over lochs.

Tips for Responsible Watching Wildlife in Abernethy Forest:

The Two Lochs walk is a popular route in Abernethy Forest, especially during the osprey season, so to help protect the forest and wildlife you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and RSPB on any signs.

If you’re hoping to see capercaillie, the best way is to walk on the forest trails in the early morning as they will often come to the paths to gather grit. Bear in mind that for this part of Scotland that will be between 4am and 5am in May, June and July. Avoid leaving the paths in the forest as you could be disturbing ground-nesting birds.

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The edge of the Cairngorm plateau from Loch Garten.

In drier areas of the forest, you’ll see big mounds of pine needles, which are the nests of wood ants. These can grow up to a metre high, and can be home to well over 100,000 individual ants. Standing deadwood is as valuable to wildlife as living trees, especially the invertebrate life of the forest, and a good indication of the quality of the habitat.

Wildlife refuge areas should be given a wide berth if you choose to go wild swimming in either of the lochs; these are the sheltered bays, particularly at the southern and eastern sides of the lochs, especially in the autumn when the lochs are important roosts for migratory birds.

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Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion.

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30 of my favourite places in the British and Irish Isles

The archipelago of the British and Irish Isles, on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, is home to a wealth of vibrant communities, historic landmarks, and inspiring locations. Not to mention the breath-taking views and the incredible diversity of landscapes over such a small geographical area. There really is just so much to see in and around these islands.

From stark mountain summits and bleakly beautiful moors, to sweeping silver sand beaches and spectacular rocky coasts, from cityscapes that blend the futuristic and the historic, to picturesque villages and towns that tell our industrial story; I’m sharing this list of my  30 favourite places to visit in Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

As with all lists of favourite places, it’s highly subjective, influenced by the places I’ve visited over the years, often again and again, and the memories I’ve made there. It’s very also much a list of current favourites, as there are so many places around these islands that I have yet to visit. But I hope you enjoy my choices, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to visit some for yourselves. Who’s for a road trip? Or a sailing voyage?

Continue reading “30 of my favourite places in the British and Irish Isles”

Three Winter Walks on the Isle of Wight

I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years living and working on the Isle of Wight, and covering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the south of England as a Wildlife Ranger.  As days grow shorter and temperatures grow colder, the island’s beaches, creeks, and estuaries seem to look even more beautiful, whatever the weather, and become havens for thousands of overwintering birds.  Without the numbers of tourists that visit in summer, exploring the Isle of Wight in winter often means have beautiful coastal walks all to yourself.

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What I’ve loved this season | Autumn 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

I finished working on Irene in early September, after a beautiful few days sailing around Falmouth, visiting Charlestown, St. Mawes and the Helford River, and headed up to Cambridge for a week of training with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.  It was an intense week, with a lot of information to take in, but an exhilarating experience as we covered a lot of the practical and theoretical stuff necessary for living and working in Antarctica.

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A sunrise start on the Helford River near Falmouth in Cornwall.

The training week was followed up by a lot of online courses and independent research.  I’ll write more about the training and preparation I’ve undertaken for my role at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy soon, but I think nothing will actually come close to the experience of arriving and setting foot on the island for the first time.

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Windswept and interesting! With Wendy Searle, Lucy Hawthorne, Lauren Own and Jo Symonowski on Pen y Fan.

At the end of September I  headed to the Brecon Beacons, to meet a group of fantastic women and do something a bit unusual; hike up Pen y Fan wearing a corset, bloomers and full tweed skirts.  You can read more about our Great Corset Caper here, and the good cause that inspired us, My Great Escape here.

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Autumn in Glen Tanar on Royal Deeside.
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The view towards Mount Keen and the mounth from Glen Tanar.
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Autumn leaves about to fall on a frost nipped morning.
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A mysterious walk to the Rollright Stones

A beautiful walk in the Cotswolds with a rich history and folklore.

Legend claims that these enigmatic standing stones on the edge of the Cotswolds are a local chieftain and his band of warriors, petrified by a powerful witch and fated to forever stand watch from their lofty location. However, this megalithic complex, which spans more than 2,000 years of Neolithic and Bronze Age development, has yet more mysterious stories to discover.

rollright_1_smNatural chunks of golden Cotswold limestone, the characteristic stone used in local buildings, the great age of the Rollright Stones is evident in their pitted, weathered, and lichen-spattered surfaces. The standing stones known as the Whispering Knights are earliest, dating from between 3,800 and 3,500 BCE, the early Neolithic period. The King’s Men stone circle is late Neolithic, from around 2,500 BCE, and the single King Stone is from the Bronze Age, raised in approximately 1,500 BCE. Continue reading “A mysterious walk to the Rollright Stones”